Thursday, February 28, 2008

To Zell And Back

Pressing Issues

Crusty Sam Zell, new owner of the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune and other papers, has drawn a lot of laughs and fire the past couple of weeks with his various blunt or profane comments to staffers.

Yesterday he added to this on CNBC by blaming the country's economic woes on "fear mongering" by Hillary and Obama who are personally halting a recovery, saying: "Obviously what we have going on is an attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Zell. "We have two Democratic candidates who are vying with each other to describe the economic situation worse."

Dave Horsey, the longtime editorial cartoonist, comments today with a slam at Zell's news values -- syndicated by Zell's own Tribune.

He also provides a lengthy blast in a blog post, at his home Seattle Post-Intelligencer site, in which he writes:

"Sam Zell is the most vulgar embodiment of a pervasive bean counter mentality that is threatening the best of American journalism."

Cartoonist Horsey Rips Zell in Word and Drawing

By E&P Staff

Published: February 27, 2008 9:30 AM ET
NEW YORK David Horsey, the longtime political cartoonist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, today knocks new Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell in a multi-panel cartoon -- and blog post -- at the paper's site. His cartoons are syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

Zell continues to make news with blunt, sometimes profane, comments to staffers about their work and news values, and has been suggesting further cuts to come.

The cartoon, which comments on Zell's recent statements, ends with what it calls the new owner's most desired front-page headline: ORANGE COUNTY PUPPIES ARE THE CUTEST, along with an ad for a strip club below.

It can be found here.

Here is an except from the blog post by Horsey, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

Who is Sam Zell and why should you care? The answer to the second part of that question is easy: the health of our nation depends on an informed electorate and an informed electorate depends on an unfettered news media willing to tell people more than what they want to hear.

The answer to the first part of that question is that Sam Zell is the most vulgar embodiment of a pervasive bean counter mentality that is threatening the best of American journalism.

At the end of 2007, Zell concluded a sweet deal to take over the Chicago-based Tribune Company -- sweet, because he did it with a small amount of his own money. He leveraged the deal by borrowing billions of dollars from the Tribune employees retirement funds (how this is legal, I cannot fathom). Now he is master of a media conglomerate that reaches 80 percent of Americans through 23 televisions stations and 11 daily newspapers.

What does Zell know about journalism? No more than any other billionaire real estate mogul. But that hasn't stopped him from telling off journalists at some of the country's best newspapers -- the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Hartford Courant, the Baltimore Sun and, finest of all, the Los Angeles Times. Zell has told these new employees of his that they are practitioners of an arrogant kind of journalism that doesn't give readers what they want and fails to make increasing company profits a key objective of news gathering.

As I detailed in my cartoon, Zell has delivered his message on a grand tour of his properties, dropping F-bombs all along the way. Worse than his crude language, though, is his vision of the future of journalism. Apparently, foreign coverage and reporting from Washington, D.C., will be discounted. Stories that seek to protect the public interest by tackling tough, important subjects will be frowned upon, unless they can somehow be shown to enhance the bottom line....

No one would dispute that newspapers are in dire trouble. Profits and readership are falling fast. But publishing pap will not bring them back. People still value serious and substantive information. Newspaper web sites are booming. What is missing is a new economic model for the news business. That's what a smart businessman like Zell should be working on. Sure, journalists need to adapt to new ways of delivering information to an audience that can access a world of information with a few clicks of a mouse. But dumbing down the news product is the dumbest idea of all. It won't bring in the profits wheeler-dealers like Zell crave. It will, however, imperil our free society.

There is a reason Thomas Jefferson said, if given the choice between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he'd opt for the latter. Jefferson knew there was nothing less at stake in that equation than our very liberty.

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